Tobago’s Hurricane Flora experience


Rita Pemberton

Monday, September 30, 1963, began as a normal working day for the people of Tobago.

Without any advisory of expected adverse weather, adults went off to work and children to school without the slightest notion of the tragedy that would befall the island that day.

The newspaper reports later provided much information on the extensive damage it suffered and the relief and restorative work that was necessary, but little attention was paid to what people experienced throughout the unexpected ordeal.

That day began with heavy cloud cover, and by mid-morning, the sky became darker. No one paid any attention to the erratic behaviour of the birds flying seemingly aimlessly across the sky.

Life on the island went topsy-turvy when rain and storm-force winds started, as the outer rain bands of the hurricane hit the island with fury. The rain was blowing in all directions and the roofs of some offices and schools were damaged.

There was a lull in the wind and schools across the island were dismissed during the lunch hour when – after the fact – official notice of an impending storm had been given. Most schoolchildren had no idea what a hurricane was, and the school syllabus did not include any explanation. Being unaware of the potential danger, some children stayed “to shelter” from the rain, assuming it would cease.

Some homes succumbed, while others were damaged by the force of the wind and rain during this early phase.

The tranquil image of the island was transformed from that of a lush land surrounded by blue sea fringed by white sand to an angry brown sea with waves which churned into foamy walls of water that elevated themselves skywards and raced without ceasing to the shore, uprooting coconut trees and carting them in different directions.

Some homeowners tried to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the “lull” to secure their roofs, but in one instance the wind lifted both roof and owner across the sky, the latter to his demise.

In Scarborough, people scrambled to try to get home, but that was no simple undertaking because the damage to trees and buildings was extensive, and the enraged sea kept pumping water onto the land, to which was added the runoff from swollen rivers and streams, which accumulated in low-lying areas and made streams into rivers and rivers into lakes blocked with fallen trees, logs and debris.

Roads were impassable and vehicular traffic was impossible. People hopscotched their way to their homes, some attempting to clear some of the obstacles and assist others. Secondary-school students from the windward areas gathered at the corner of Main and Bacolet Streets, their usual transport hub, but none was available. They were offered food and shelter by the Armstrong family, who lived nearby.

Students from Mason Hall were able to walk home, but in addition to trees, logs and debris, the road was studded with boulders from the quarry and landslides. With help from adults, the children made it home.

Dark clouds and a hooting sound announced the arrival of Hurricane Flora with its 100-mph winds from its eyewall, which unleashed its fury from about 3 pm and flattened the island in the process.

The impact of the wind can best be described as an unco-ordinated dance routine. In its anti-clockwise motion, the wind twirled and twisted the trees, causing some to “bend down low” into limbo positions, while the clockwise moving bands elevated and twisted them in the opposite direction, causing many to break. The sky came alive with pieces of galvanise, windows and other parts of buildings which people scurrying for to safety had to dodge. The normally calm Buccoo Reef was unrecognisable, in uproar, with waves lashing the shore.

At the end of the ordeal Tobagonians were able to take stock of the damage to their premises and the island.

After the storm had passed, despite the incessant rain and darkness, a group of students from Windward districts undertook the 17-mile journey home to Belle Garden. They passed through village after village, but only made it to Pembroke, where they were housed, fed and given dry clothes, and continued their homeward journey the following morning.

But to the dismay of many, home was not in the state in which they had left it in the morning.

Residents of Plymouth who attempted to walk home without success were given overnight accommodation and made their way home the following day.

The wholesale destruction of trees made fruit readily available to the children, who en route relished the pommecytheres, oranges and other fruit until the reality of the tragedy, and the extent to which life on the island had changed, hit them.

Fishermen in Plymouth were unable to ply their trade because of the logs and debris in the water, which prevented the casting of seines. In addition, the rivers brought brown water which made it impossible to find fish. It became scarce, and those who had supplies of corned fish survived. In one household the meals served were called “Hurricane Food”: rice, saltfish, and coconut milk.

Coconut water became a popular after-the-hurricane drink, because the nuts were readily available from the large number of trees felled by the hurricane winds, and the kernels were used to feed birds, fowls, and other domestic animals.

After the hurricane was over people sought refuge with their neighbours; unfortunately, one such incident in Bethel ended with tragedy. Four members of a family whose house had been damaged sheltered at a neighbour’s house which later collapsed, killing all the occupants.

In Bloody Bay, a family whose home had been damaged went to a neighbour who offered the only available space, underneath a pile of wood traditionally kept for making coffins when one was required for a member of the family. There they passed the night in safety.

Bacolet Guest House provided food and overnight accommodation to travellers to windward areas unable to make their way home because of the felled trees blocking the road.

What is most interesting about the Flora experience is the way people rallied and willingly assisted those in need. The hurricane brought people together, and before government relief measures were implemented, the len’ han’ tradition stimulated the first responders in the communities.

People forgot their differences and helped those in need. Neighbours and relatives who had not spoken to each other for years, and those whose homes were not damaged, offered shelter to the more unfortunate, some of whom remained there for months.

Groups of neighbours assisted those affected to search the scattered rubble for missing windows and other parts of houses that had been blown away. Len’ han’ groups helped to repair homes and began clearing roads and access to homes in their communities. To ensure that no one went without, owners of shops and parlours gave food to displaced people, because it took a month before the official food-relief system went into action.

Although Hurricane Flora was a disaster the people of Tobago would never forget, on the flip side, the experience strengthened the community, which served as the first port of call for remedial action and implemented the first relief measures before the government system was implemented. Both official and media reports failed to capture this dimension of Tobago’s 1963 hurricane experience.


"Tobago’s Hurricane Flora experience"

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